Marilyn Carlson Nelson was born to be a CEO. She became a writer entirely by accident.
The current trend in literature directed at bosses and business leaders aims to teach the people in charge how to woo more customers or wring more from their employees. Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chairman and former CEO of Carlson Companies, and now author of “How We Lead Matters,” didn’t set out to write one of those kinds of books. Actually, she didn’t set out to write a book at all.
“My grandson asked me if I was alive during segregation, and I realized that he didn’t really know me. We’d taken vacations together, seen each other at holidays and at his hockey games, and he knew I was the CEO, but I realized that he didn’t know about the things I’d fought for and the things I believe in and care about, or the changes I’d seen,” says Nelson.
So she started collecting various snippets and anecdotes about her life: Hanging with kings and queens, breakfast with Madeleine Albright, the time Mikhail Gorbachev and a bunch of KGB agents came over to her house for a backyard BBQ — you know, regular grandma stuff.
There’s no way to tell Nelson’s story without including the extraordinary. The daughter of the founder of one of the world’s largest privately owned companies, Nelson served as CEO of Carlson Companies from 1998 to January of this year, guiding it to global success after an illustrious career at Carlson and with other companies. She’s served on the board of Exxon Mobil, U.S. West, First Bank and is a member of the World Economic Forum. She’s widely viewed as one of the most powerful and influential women in the business world, and is also an active leader with several charitable organizations. But she started out this writing project thinking of her grandson, so her childhood and family life figure just as prominently in these stories as do the famous folk this grandmother regularly runs with.
In particular, Nelson’s daughter Juliet, who died in a car accident during her first week away at college, is a guiding presence in the book. While grieving her loss, Nelson vowed to live each day to the fullest, to make it a day she would “be proud to sign my name to.”
To that end, these memories take the form of a collection of miniature essays, each a one-page parable or telling moment from Nelson’s life, with quotes from inspiring writers and leaders on each facing page. “I thought that if I kept them short and very clear, funny, or interesting, I could let Jamie and my other grandchildren and friends know me better,” she said.
But as she worked on the project, word got out. “People were asking, ‘What are these stories about?’ The executives at Carlson started saying, ‘Let me have a copy.’ Then they started saying, ‘We ought to make a few copies, because we might want to hand them out at the 70th anniversary of Carlson.’ Then I got a call from McGraw-Hill: Someone had sent them a copy without asking me, and they said they would like to publish it.”
Would that it worked that way for every aspiring writer. Nelson says she was worried at first. “I said, ‘Uh oh—this is so personal! How do I feel about it being shared so broadly? What should I take out?’ Then I decided no, if it was meant to be inspirational and instructive to my family, then it might be to others, too.”
“How We Lead Matters” spins Nelson’s life experiences into lessons in leadership, and not just for the powerful. “How we lead our lives matters. We all have moments of leadership with our children, with our workplaces, and within the community. We all have moments where we are making choices,” she says. “I don’t think it’s the CEOs or Washington that ultimately is going to change what goes on in this country. It’s you and I and each of us accepting our role as leaders.”
But to those who do wield the serious power, this grandmother says it’s time to shape up. Now in her 68th year, Nelson has seen how choices play out over the long term, and she says it’s time to look into the future as we make decisions today.
“We are all stewards. We are stewards of our environment, and we need to pay attention to that. We’re stewards of our resources, and of human resources, and as leaders we need to do the best we can to achieve performance, but not put our customers and employees at risk,” she says. “We’re all looking right now at corporations where the desire to stretch for the best possible share performance may have overwhelmed people’s judgment about stewardship. The same thing is true with politicians, I think. Our leaders are all on such a short timeframe that there isn’t the thought to investment in infrastructure, investment in the future, weighing the risk and reward and making the kinds of decisions that benefit everyone, not just the few.”
What: Reading and signing
When: 7-9 p.m., Monday, Sept. 22
Where: Barnes and Noble, Har Mar Mall, Roseville
How much: Free
What: Reading and signing
When: 2-4 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 28
Where: Barnes and Noble Galleria, Edina
How much: Free